Interview with Henk Noorman
1. Why are novel feedstock important for DSM to be explored?
From a sustainability point of view, we want to become less dependent of the food-chain by using more non-food feedstocks in our fermentation activities. Furthermore, feedstocks bring a significant contribution to the overall cost and therefore we are exploring lower cost alternatives.
Therefore, we explore, develop and deploy novel feedstocks. One example is the use of sugar hydrolysates from lignocellulosic waste, which not suitable for consumption. Another example is the use of C1 gases such as carbon monoxide (from steel factories) and methane (from biogas), which are today cheaper per electron compared to sugars.
The ultimate feedstock would be carbon dioxide in combination with electrons from renewable sources like wind, and solar. This is low TRL (Technology Readiness Level), but we are actively monitoring progress via private-public partnerships.
2. What are the biggest challenges in this field?
With our partner POET we have developed an industrial process for using corn waste to make ethanol. This is the first plant of its kind and we face mostly operational challenges. You could say that we are running through a steep learning curve.
For the gases, the lower cost per electron is partly off-set by mass transfer limitations, as the gases are poorly soluble in water, and product concentrations are low due to cell toxicity issues and significant dilution. Can we design better bioreactors, e.g. partly integrated with downstream processing, or improve the water management in these processes in combination with improving the robustness of the microorganisms. This is a rich ground for integrated strain-process innovation.
3. Which novel feedstocks are currently in the focus and why?
As indicated above, second generation sugars are in focus already for more than a decade, while the C1 gases are emerging. Several companies are developing processes (e.g. Calysta together with Cargill) or have reached the commercial stage (Lanzatech with partners in the steel sector). Other companies are already working on carbon dioxide plus hydrogen (syngas). This is a path that will link fermentation to the energy value chains, and we expect to further benefit from the large steps made in the energy transition.
Henk Noorman gave a key note in DSM sponsored apparel track at EFIB 2019: ‘’Novel feedstocks – How to advance sustainable strategies for a bio-based economy’’.